Standing near her home across the street from St. Olaf on a recent cold morning, Mattie Lufkin described the problems she sees with the college’s plan to add housing for 440 students nearby.
Lufkin, who lives on the corner of Lincoln Lane and Lincoln Street, said she and other neighboring property owners are considering whether to move from the area due to their concerns that the project will draw more noise, diesel truck pollution and car traffic to the stretch.
“The work they are proposing to do is going to be extremely disruptive in the neighborhood in many ways,” she said. “It’s simply not sustainable.”
The development includes a 300-bed residential hall designed as four separate houses with interconnected hallways and lounges. Another 140 beds would be added in 14 proposed townhouses along St. Olaf Avenue near the college’s west entrance. All units are intended for college juniors and seniors. The townhouses would replace aging residences, ranging from 78 to more than 110 years old, that the college has acquired over the years.
The more than $60 million development would come on the land west of Lincoln Avenue that used to hold the school’s Honor Houses and the President’s House.
St. Olaf Vice President and Chief Financial Officer Jan Hanson contradicted Lufkin’s concerns, noting the project isn’t expected to add student or car traffic to the surrounding neighborhood. She added a traffic study completed by a third-party consultant showed campus activities and noise levels weren’t expected to fluctuate with the new facilities.
Lufkin said she and other residents who live within 350 feet of the building project have not been notified of the pending project as required. To her, St. Olaf and other colleges neighboring residential areas need to develop property on campus when possible.
Hanson disputed Lufkin’s allegation regarding public notice, adding all property owners within 350 feet were invited to a neighborhood meeting by St. Olaf. She noted St. Olaf and the school’s student housing design team will host a public virtual information session Dec. 21.
“This same group was also provided mailed public meeting notices by the city of Northfield,” she said. “For both the invitations and the notices, geographical information system data from the Rice County Coordinate System was used to determine properties within 350 feet of the St. Olaf student housing project.”
Hanson has noted the college explored alternative sites for the development but wants any expansion to occur on “The Hill,” and use existing infrastructure. According to officials, any development will be done with cognizance of the existing character of the area. Rain gardens are expected to be installed with the townhomes.
Public comments on the project have been mixed. Prior to a Dec. 1 City Council meeting, St. Olaf Avenue residents Greg Kneser and Sandy Kimmes spoke against the additional parking. Kneser, who served as the college’s dean of student life for nearly decades, said he’s “very concerned” about the possible increase in vehicle traffic on the stretch with the pre-existing number of non-motorists who utilize the area.
Paul Jackson said though he supports the rezoning and conditional use permits, he did not support additional parking due to its perceived adverse impact on the city’s recently adopted Climate Action Plan.
Current plans do not call for the development of the popular sledding hill in front of Old Main, but do include the rezoning of the field at the bottom of the hill to college development.
Nearby residents Karen Saxe and Peter Webb said they favor only rezoning land north of First Street West and not the field at the bottom of Old Main. To them, not rezoning the field would lessen any perception that St. Olaf is encroaching into residential areas to the east of campus.
Northfielder Toby Barksdale is concerned that rezoning the rugby field by First, Second and Linden streets to college development would “open the possibility of surprise development in the future.”
Project plans move ahead with questions
The St. Olaf Board of Regents approved the project in January. The project was temporarily paused in May due to financial uncertainty wrought by COVID-19. Plans call for construction to start next year, and occupancy by fall 2022.
The Northfield Planning Commission last month recommended the City Council approve the project’s conditional use permit and rezone nine parcels on the north and south sides of West St. Olaf Avenue to allow for the project to take place. However, the Planning Commission rejected the addition of more than 180 parking stalls north of the proposed development, an increase the college said was needed for overflow student and event parking.
The council approved the first reading of the proposed zoning changes Tuesday, Dec. 1.
According to the college, the development would enable at least 100 students who are living off campus to move back. In the process, St. Olaf students say poor student behavior reported off campus would be reduced and the college would become more competitive in pursuing students seeking an on-campus residential experience. St. Olaf officials say the facilities will also allow for expanded summer conferencing.
Despite approving the measure, Planning Commissioner Betsey Buckheit said “the serious issue” she sees with the project is that St Olaf was seemingly trying to force the city’s hand by having already bought the properties they were seeking to change through zoning. She added she wants Northfield and St. Olaf to establish where the college’s boundary ends to provide neighbors a clear understanding.
To Hanson, the college is not encroaching on surrounding neighborhoods.
“This project brings students closer to campus than where they’re currently living in honor houses or in community rental units,” she said. “The college is not purchasing any property for the project; it’s being built on property that we already own. The project, as proposed, includes a green buffer area almost a block long between the project and Lincoln Street.”
St. Olaf: Project needed to address persistent shortage
The majority of the school’s residence halls were built between 1956-63. However, Olson noted the college has faced a shortage of more than 400 on-campus beds since the 1990s as enrollment has outpaced residential development. To combat the shortage, St. Olaf has sometimes had up to three students living in the same room and allowed several hundred to live off campus. According to the college, the project is also needed for St. Olaf to compete in recruiting students to campus.
“The project is being planned with sustainability as a prominent feature, along with pedestrian safety, stormwater best practices, and high-quality landscaping to integrate with the existing campus and provide park-like, pedestrian-friendly buffering to the adjacent single-family residences,” Hanson said.
A document expected to play a role in significant changes to downtown Northfield over the next 10-20 years which has drawn scrutiny from organizers of the city’s largest celebration, has earned the City Council’s endorsement.
The Northfield City Council approved the Riverfront Enhancement Plan Dec. 1 by a 5-2 vote. Councilors David DeLong and Brad Ness voted no.
Main components of the plan, introduced in September, call for the city to entirely develop Ames Park on the northeast corner of Fifth Street and Hwy. 3, start planning for a multi-use building for Babcock Park/rodeo grounds, and implementing canoe/kayak water access for the Cannon River. Another major component of the plan calls for the city to complete its local/regional trail system by planning and installing a comprehensive wayfinding system, and connecting Ames to Sechler Park. However, Defeat of Jesse James Days organizers have said those changes would jeopardize the annual DJJD carnival, car show, truck and tractor pull, and rodeo, which are held on those sites.
A five-day event that honors the townsfolk’s defeat of the notorious bank robbers, the James-Younger Gang, DJJD attracts nearly 250,000 visitors every year to the city.
DJJD organizers recently met with City Administrator Ben Martig, Mayor Rhonda Pownell and Riverfront Enhancement Committee members to discuss their concerns.
Councilors David DeLong unsuccessfully sought to amend approval of the plan to require the “engagement” and “inclusion” of the DJJD Committee “and other key stakeholders” before any changes are made within the corridor. Fellow Councilor Brad Ness also voted yes to the amendment. To DeLong, the amended motion didn’t negatively impact the plan but instead formally placed in writing the council’s desire to work with DJJD organizers, Veterans Memorial Park and the Lions Club when making any decisions. However, Councilor Suzie Naskasian questioned the need to amend the motion because a commitment to engage key stakeholders in the process was already included in the resolution.
Nakasian and fellow Councilors Jessica Peterson White, Clarice Grenier Grabau and Erica Zweifel all said the amendment would have placed an open-ended, vague future obligation on the council. To Mayor Rhonda Pownell, the amendment gave the Defeat of Jesse James Days Committee too much control over the future of Babcock, Ames and Riverside parks.
Following the rejection of the amendment, Ness, who has served as the DJJD general chair, signaled his disapproval of the plan as is and called it “the first nail in the coffin for the Defeat of Jesse James Days.”
DeLong said he didn’t want the city to repeat its past mistake of not sufficiently engaging with the Defeat of Jesse James Days Committee. To him, the plan “seems to leapfrog” other projects, including ones identified in the Park System Master Plan.
Mayor Rhonda Pownell noted the city tried to engage the community through virtual meetings during the pandemic, citing the extensive comments on the plan from stakeholders and the additional 30 pages of city-submitted feedback.
‘The plan helps us’
Zweifel, who was one of the council liaisons on the DJJD Committee, said she appreciated the group’s work and consideration of a number of plans on the corridor.
“It was hours and hours of work,” she said.
Peterson White noted approval didn’t set any firm plans but did move the council toward maximizing the use of the corridor throughout the year. Though admitting she wished some of the concept plans were not included, she emphasized the action plan is only a concept.
“The plan helps us as a community to orient us toward our best asset,” she said of the riverfront corridor.
The council approved forming the Riverfront Enhancement Advisory Committee during a November 2018 meeting. The committee was asked to develop plans and recommend action steps the city could take to better utilize the Cannon River, which cuts through Northfield’s heart. Making improvements along the riverfront was a specific goal listed under economic development within the city’s 2018-20 strategic plan. The committee determined what areas of the river/riverfront should be targeted for improvement and suggested ways to do so.
The Riverfront Enhancement Plan also includes completing the Mill Towns Trail, adding bike lanes to downtown bridges and mowing a temporary trail on city land along the west side of the Cannon River. The plan calls for the city to explore the transfer of the Ames Mill dam, owned by Post Consumer Brands/Malt-O-Meal, to the city and transforming it into “an exciting and rare whitewater experience.” The plan suggests conducting a dam study recommended by Minnesota Department of Natural Resources staff, assessing alternatives for the future of the dam and applying for grant funding for the new dam’s design and construction.
Promoting the city’s economic development and its role as a tourist destination is also included. Immediate action could include exploring incentives to improve the riverside facades of downtown buildings, working with one or more businesses on pilot projects and applying for grant funding. The plan also calls for the city to begin the application process to apply for formal state designation as a regional park by June 30.
Community Development Director Mitzi Baker said there are a number of potential grant funding sources for implementing the plan, including through obtaining regional park status, for park design and construction, trails, improvements to commercial buildings and other possible components.
Northfield city leaders are expressing apprehension over a plan to rezone land along a stretch of I-35 between Faribault and Hwy. 19 from Urban Expansion to Commercial Industrial.
Included in the county’s updated comprehensive plan, it’s a change they say could work against city goals and draw business away from the community.
The area, which runs from slightly north of Hwy. 19 to County Road 8, lacks infrastructure to support commercial development the county’s draft 2040 Comprehensive Plan proposes. At its southern end, just north of land recently annexed into the city of Faribault, would be hundreds more acres set aside for industrial and commercial development. It’s seen as likely that land would eventually become part of Faribault.
County Administrator Sara Folsted said a public hearing and approval of the plan, which began in 2015, has been paused until 2021 as officials seek further feedback and continue addressing COVID-19.
“No one wanted to rush the process, especially given the COVID-19 pandemic,” she said.
Northfield City Administrator Ben Martig noted the City Council was set to consider submitting a letter regarding the Comp Plan to Rice County Dec. 1 but delayed doing so to give staff additional time to develop options for the council.
EDA: Plan runs counter to city goals
According to Northfield Economic Development Authority members, the goal to rezone the stretch of the interstate potentially conflicts with Northfield’s desire to densify the city and attract businesses to town. The stretch does not fall within city limits, and extending infrastructure from Northfield would be costly.
EDA member/Northfield city councilor Jessica Peterson White, who previously served as a Rice County commissioner, said this fall that the plan to target the section for commercial/industrial development “is an area of serious concern.” She said Rice County officials have not provided sufficient reasoning for doing so.
To make the development reality, the county will need to collect revenue from either Faribault or Northfield to complete needed infrastructure work. In noting the ongoing competition to attract businesses between the cities of Northfield and Faribault, EDA member Mike Strobel called the proposal “basically a power grab,” for Faribault.
Folsted denied the plan favors one community over another.
In a presentation to the City Council in October, Rice County Zoning Administrator Trent McCorkell called the I-35 corridor expansion “a main part” of commercial/industrial development in the county. However, he said, the inclusion of the proposed expansion doesn’t mean the entire portion, which is privately held, will be developed. He noted Faribault has developed to the north on the corridor within the last few years, and the proposed plan accommodates that shift as well as the city’s inclusion of the expansion in future planning.
During a recent meeting, EDA member Rachel Leatham was struck by the enormity of the goals identified in the plan and its potential implications on the local tax rate. Also, she said the language and spirit of the plan seems out of sync with the city’s stated goals.
“The plan just seems really tone deaf in terms of our culture,” she said.
Nort Johnson, Faribault Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism president/CEO, doesn’t agree with the concerns expressed by Northfield officials, noting any growth on the corridor is going to benefit all of Rice County. To Johnson, the area will draw development and focus on needed subregional growth instead of focusing on the economic growth of individual cities.
“All boats will rise with this tide,” he said.
In declining to take a stance on the plan, Northfield Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism President Lisa Peterson said the Chamber doesn’t typically take positions on such initiatives, but sends the information to members and encourages business officials to express their opinions to elected officials.
County engineer: Road work synergizes with plans
Rice County Highway Engineer Dennis Luebbe said county officials hope 23 miles of I-35 frontage road north of Faribault is developed by the end of 2025 at a projected $25 million cost.
He noted the county has, over the last seven years, rebuilt the previously antiquated 11-mile stretch of frontage road on the west side of the interstate it received from the state decades ago when I-35 was developed.
The county is also planning work on a 5-mile stretch of County Road 46 from Hwy. 19 to the Scott County border in 2024. In addition, the county has received state grants to upgrade a portion of the frontage road on the east side of the interstate due to the perceived economic development potential of the stretch.
It’s worth noting that while city and county officials in October 2018 courted state legislative leaders, hoping for assistance with a new interchange at County Road 9 and the interstate, Faribault city leaders have since redirected economic development efforts to the southwest side of the city near Hwy. 60 and I-35.
Officials had hoped to work on a stretch of County Road 76 from County Road 8 to County Road 1 this year, but that project has been delayed due to issues over eminent domain and the COVID-induced closures of the state courts.
Though Luebbe noted the frontage roads would have likely been rebuilt regardless of any land use changes, he acknowledged the synergy such work has with any future commercial/industrial development on the stretch.
Townships request thorough plan, express concern
Forest Township borders I-35 on much of the land the zoning changes would occur on.
Forest Township Supervisor Charlie Peters, a Rice County Planning and Zoning Board member, said he hasn’t read through the proposed comp plan and couldn’t take a stand on the possible changes because he wasn’t aware of the industries that could locate on the stretch.
“We’d like to see it done, just planned out well,” he said of the stretch. “We’ve gotta have sewer and water in place before they just haphazardly develop.”
In a letter to Rice County, the Bridgewater Township Board of Supervisors asked officials to reconsider whether rezoning the entire area commercial/industrial was the best use of the land. Supervisors asked the county to consider state statute identifying the need to preserve quality ag land.
“The comments related to that area were that the development plan was really poorly defined, so in other words there didn’t seem to be any specific strategy or actions for getting utilities there, sewer, water, transportation,” said Supervisor Glen Castore.
Despite the township’s concerns, Castore said the board isn’t sure whether any development would be beneficial or detrimental to the township. He noted rezoning an area doesn’t guarantee development will take place.
Plan draws pushback from local landowners
During a July 21 meeting of the Rice County Board of Commissioners, residents Diane Vonruden and Sam Sunderlin, and former Bridgewater Supervisor Kathleen Doran-Norton expressed apprehension over the rezoning plan. During the meeting, Vonruden suggested the county has bent over backward to attract development she and many of her neighbors believe detrimental to the serene, ag-centered life she enjoys.
The most recent project proposed for the area, Wolf Creek Autobahn, was pulled by the developer after he lost development rights to a large portion of land off County Road 1. Landowners working with Krzyzaniak requested and obtained zoning changes that would have allowed the project, which included hundreds of condos, a 5.6-mile track, an RV park and associated retail outlet and a restaurant, to move forward. It was a project roundly criticized by area residents concerned with anticipated increases in traffic and noise, and harm to the environment and area wildlife.
Sunderlin, who represents a new nonprofit, Forest Economic Development Association, asked for qualified planning engineers to “help determine what is feasible, and provide a very specific plan to ensure that only compatible, inclusive and sustainable developments be allowed as our neighbors.”
In late 2015, the county held three public meetings on what a new Comprehensive Plan should include. Nearly 100 attended. There have been several stops and starts since then; some delays were related to new staff working on the project and getting them acclimated to their new jobs.
A Northfield Early Ventures Childcare Center employee was fired Dec. 2 after school officials discovered she placed a dietary supplement often used to aid insomniacs was in at least one infant’s bottle, according to Superintendent Matt Hillmann.
Hillmann said officials learned Nov. 30 that staff had found small tablets of melatonin in the infant room at Early Ventures, a child care center operated by the school district.
Melatonin is a hormone the brain produces in response to darkness. “Melatonin supplements may help with certain conditions, such as jet lag, delayed sleep-wake phase disorder, some sleep disorders in children, and anxiety before and after surgery,” according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. And though melatonin is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, the regulations for dietary supplements aren’t as strict as those for prescription medications and over-the-counter drugs.
The impacts of the hormone have not been studied at length in infants.
Hillmann noted that number of impacted children is likely higher, but that hasn’t been confirmed. And, he said, the district is “not aware of any direct impact on the health of any children.”
“Northfield Public Schools is angered by the appalling actions of the rogue former employee,” Hillmann said. “We place the highest priority on trusting relationships with our community and understand this isolated incident may impact that trust. We will work diligently to rebuild that trust with our community.”
Hillmann said the district quickly investigated and took action once administrators were informed of the potential violation of district policy and state guidelines against administering substances without parent permission. The district has made a report to the Minnesota Department of Human Services, and a police report.
“Our urgent concern is focused on the needs of the families directly affected by these inappropriate actions,” Hillmann noted. “We have reached out individually to each family potentially involved. We will support them as they absorb the emotional impact of this experience and provide available resources.”
Hillmann noted the district will review Child Care Center processes and procedures to identify potential improvements.
“I am confident this was an isolated incident,” he said. “Northfield Public Schools staff demonstrate every day their commitment to caring appropriately for the children they serve. That said, we will look deep into our existing practices to make sure we are doing everything we can to prevent anything like this from happening again.”